After fire, officials scramble for reforms


 O'Malley vows to address failures that led to arson as hundreds attend vigil 

By M. Dion Thompson and Laura Vozzella 
Sun Staff 

October 22, 2002 

On a day when hundreds remembered six people killed in a fire many believe was set in retaliation for a mother's stand against drug dealers, politicians scrambled for ways to address Baltimore's crime problems and the failures of the state's criminal justice system. 

At an afternoon news conference, Mayor Martin O'Malley outlined a plan calling for enlisting 100 state troopers to help city police, increasing jail and prison capacity by sending some inmates out of state, and finding more volunteers to mentor city children. 

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend asked Gov. Parris N. Glendening to lift a hiring freeze on the state's Division of Parole and Probation after reports that the man accused of setting the fire had not reported to his parole agent, a violation that likely could have landed him in jail. 

O'Malley said that permission had been granted to hire an extra 75 parole and probation agents, although that could not be confirmed by state officials yesterday. 

All the efforts were aimed at finding concrete ways to achieve the vow made repeatedly at the rally that a crime such as the one that occurred last Wednesday would never happen again. 

"We're going to pull this city together as we've never pulled it together because we have a responsibility to the little ones who lost their lives across the way," O'Malley told the crowd gathered last night at East Preston and Eden streets. "We all need to do our part. None of us can say we are doing enough." 

The mayor said the fire presented Baltimore with "a moment of crisis" in which citizens had to decide where they stood in the battle against crime and violence. 

Angela Maria Dawson, 36, and her children: Keith and Kevin Dawson, 8; Carnell Dawson Jr., 10; Juan Ortiz, 12; and LaWanda Ortiz, 14, all died during a fire that gutted their three-story rowhouse last Wednesday morning. Carnell Dawson Sr., 43, jumped from a second-floor window and was critically injured. He remains in the hospital, heavily sedated, suffering from head injuries and severe burns over half of his body. Police and neighbors say the fire was set in retaliation for Dawson's stand against drug dealing in her East Baltimore neighborhood. 

O'Malley said he spent part of yesterday visiting Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School and Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle School, where the Dawson family's children attended. He saw their empty seats, talked to their classmates and wondered what could have been done to save the Dawsons. 

"We cannot allow this to stand," he told the crowd. "If all of us stand up together, not one of us can be singled out." 

Many of the rally's speakers, including the renowned surgeon Dr. Ben Carson, invoked the name of Darrell L. Brooks, the 21-year-old man charged with setting the fire. More than one speaker asked them to remember that Brooks, too, was once an innocent child whose life held as much promise as the five children who died in the fire. Brooks is being held without bail at the City Jail. His preliminary hearing is set for Nov 21. 

Authorities are considering bringing federal charges in the arson - a move that could mean Brooks would face a less forgiving jury pool and possibly harsher penalties than in the city courts. 

Probation lapses 

Brooks' criminal record stretches at least to September 1998, when he was charged with armed robbery and first-degree assault. Those cases were transferred to the juvenile system, where records of their disposition are sealed. He was convicted of two crimes: unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and felony theft. 

He arrested on two others while on probation this summer, but they were put on an inactive docket, court records show. He was jailed from June 23 to Sept. 9. 

Brooks, who lived a street from the Dawson family, could have had his probation revoked for those subsequent run-ins with the law. The system that was supposed to alert probation officials to new offenses failed in his case because he never reported to his probation agent, a state official acknowledged yesterday. A probation official was supposed to enter Brooks into an arrest disposition system once he started reporting. That would have red-flagged the new charges. Because he never reported, he never made it into the system, said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a spokesman for Public Safety and Correctional Services. 

The lapses in Brooks' supervision occurred even though he was supposed to receive the highest level of monitoring in the state under two of Townsend's pet law-enforcement programs, HotSpot and Break the Cycle. 

"I thought we had set up all these systems to make sure that people were doing the right thing," Townsend said. "We put a lot more money with Parole and Probation. We've reduced caseloads. We've set up systems. We've got new leadership. So, I am very disappointed that with all of that, this could possibly have happened." 

Townsend's opponent in the governor's race, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., declined to comment. 

"I just don't want to politicize the fire bombing. I really don't," he said, before attending last night's rally. 

O'Malley's plans to address the crisis in community safety included having state troopers help intercept drug trafficking; finding funding to pay parole and probation agents overtime; restoring the gutted Dawson residence as quickly as possible; establishing block watch programs throughout the city; and encouraging residents to report crimes on a confidential tip hotline 410-685-3784. 

The two-hour rally gave the hundreds in attendance an outlet for the emotions that have been felt since the fire raged through the Dawsons' three-story home early last Wednesday. At times, the evening became a religious revival as preachers, politicians and community leaders called for prayers. 

Yet, the prayers, the stirring lyrics of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," the uplifting song performed by the Choir Boyz, and the heartfelt speeches seemed barely to express the enormous loss and impact the fire has had on the city. 

Scores of mementos 

The boarded-up house at 1401 E. Preston St., the area around its windows and doors blackened by smoke and flames, loomed over the crowd. A tent has been set up along Eden Street for the scores of teddy bears and other mementos that have been left. More line the sidewalk and the steps. Some are tied to a Stop sign. 

And if these mementos and the sight of the house where the family died were not enough, there was the sorrowful sound of victims' mother and grandmother, Donnell Harrington Golden, moaning and weeping. Though many tried to comfort her, they soon took her from the stage and into sanctuary of nearby Knox Presbyterian Church. 

A memorial fund has been set up for the family, including Carnell Dawson Sr. and Lakeesha Bowell, an 18-year old daughter who did not live at the East Preston Street house, through Bank of America. Contributions can be sent to The Angel Family Fund, routing no. 052001633; account no. 003937455660. 

Neighbor Solomon Selby, who has stood vigil over a water jug set up to accept donations, said he has deposited more than $6,600 into the account. The jugs were almost filled again last night. 

A viewing will be held from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday at March Funeral Home East, 1101 E. North Ave. 

Memorial services will be held Thursday at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, 6000 Radecke Ave., beginning with a wake at 10 a.m., followed by the funeral at 11 a.m. The family will be buried in the "Fallen Heroes" section at Dulaney Valley cemetery. 

Alice McNack, sister of Carnell Dawson, said she had never been to a rally or vigil before. Yesterday, as the crowd dispersed, she said she hopes the city continues "to come together as a community." Then she walked off, preparing to visit her brother. 

"He's a fighter," she said. "Everyday he lives, he's a little better." 

Sun staff writers David Nitkin, Tom Pelton, Sarah Koenig and Laurie Willis contributed to this article. 

Copyright (c) 2002, The Baltimore Sun 

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